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Plant Protection Today - How PPQ Protects Pollinator Health

How PPQ Protects Pollinator Health
February 24, 2022

(Cover photo by WONG SZE FEI - stock.adobe.com.)

Pollinators Benefit Our Health and Environment

By April Dawson

An invasive pest that directly attacks pollinators indirectly threatens plant health—and U.S. agriculture. That’s where USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program comes in. The Plant Protection Act (PPA) authorizes us to regulate direct and indirect plant pests. That’s a critical responsibility when it comes to pollinators because bee pollination is responsible for $15+ billion in added crop value—particularly for specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. Think how boring and less nutritious our diet would be without these delicious foods!

Pollinators are important to our overall health and environment. They support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, and support other wildlife. They are also vulnerable to invasive pests like parasitic mites, viruses, and predatory insects. With so much at stake, PPQ protects pollinator health in many ways.

Funding Critical Pollinator Health Projects

Photo by Irina Schmidt - stock.adobe.com.

Over $2.4 million in Plant Protection Act (PPA) Section 7721 spending went to support honey bees and protect them from harmful pests and diseases. “PPQ will continue to administer the National Survey of Honeybee Pests and Diseases with PPA 7721 funds,” said National Policy Manager Anne LeBrun. “This survey helps us better understand the factors threatening our honey bees so we can take effective action to protect them and the crops that they pollinate."

Survey samples will be collected from 39 States and 2 U.S. Territories, and the District of Columbia. Survey results will document which diseases, parasites, or pests of honey bees are present and/or likely absent in the United States. The results will help explain long-term trends, factors that drive bee health, and ways to safeguard U.S. honey bee populations. PPA 7721 funding has supported the survey since 2009.

Other pollinator projects funded through PPA 7721 include:

  • Investigating the genetic diversity of the deformed wing virus, one of the most widespread viruses that infect honey bee colonies, in commercial beekeeping operations
  • Studying Varroa mite (a parasitic honey bee pest) genes that make the mites resistant to mite-killing pesticides; the researchers will analyze the relationship between these genes and the level of miticide residue in honey bee colonies
  • Developing and improving Varroa mite-resistant honey bee stocks in commercial beekeeping; these mite-resistant bees decrease the need for chemical use to manage Varroa mite infestations
  • Surveying for wild and managed bees captured in sticky traps to understand the traps’ impacts on bee populations and to help ensure other PPQ safeguarding efforts don’t pose a significant threat to bees

Historically, PPA 7721-funded projects have also improved many aspects of early detection technologies and resources. “These projects have helped us develop or improve diagnostic tests and identification tools for pollinators in a wide range of taxonomic groups containing high-priority pests,” said Biological Scientist Todd Gilligan.

Photo by Dmytro Smaglov - stock.adobe.com.

PPQ also enforces the Honeybee Act by regulating the importation of honey bees into the United States to prevent the spread of bee diseases and parasites. The regulation outlines conditions for the consideration of importing honey bees and other bees.

“Our role in the importation of honey bees and bee pollen is vital,” Senior Entomologist Wayne Wehling explained. “Our Agency closely evaluates all requests for imports of bees and bee pollen and does not hesitate to deny those requests that could present a risk to the U.S. bee population. We also monitor conditions in other countries that might export bees or pollen to the United States. We have joined with Canada and Mexico through the North American Plant Protection Organization to develop a continent-wide approach toward ensuring the importation of disease-free pollen.” 

Wehling notes that PPQ is exploring the use of irradiation and possibly other measures to reduce the risks associated with pollen importation. PPQ is also working closely with honey bee breeders to reduce the risks associated with the importation of disease-resistant stock from overseas. “We believe the U.S. apiculture industry will benefit significantly from all of these activities and remain committed to protecting honey bee health in the United States,” he said.

In January 2022, PPQ attended the annual meeting of the Apiary Inspectors of America. The association is a non-profit organization established with a mission to promote sustainable and healthy honey beekeeping conditions in North America mainly through the detection, mitigation, and ultimate suppression of bee pests, parasites, and pathogens. 

Combating the Asian Giant Hornet

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The Asian giant hornet (AGH) is a major concern for PPQ and beekeepers nationwide. AGH is a social wasp species. Its native range extends from northern India to East Asia. This pest was first reported in the Vancouver Island area of Canada in August 2019 and has since been detected in the far northwest corner of Washington State.

In the late summer and early fall, Asian giant hornets can attack honey bee hives. The hornets kill the adult bees, leaving them at the bottom of the hive. The hornets then take the bee larvae and pupae back to their nest to feed their own brood. And there’s another threat: A large and healthy nest can produce as many as 200 mated queens, which disperse to create new nests in the following spring. AGH is widely thought of as one of the worst pests of honey bees in the world because a small group of hornets can depopulate an entire honey bee hive in just a few hours.

In February 2020, PPQ’s Science and Technology (S&T) program published a New Pest Response Guideline (NPRG) for the Asian giant hornet. The NPRG provided an overview of AGH lifecycle and identified possible trapping options. Washington State used the NPRG to develop a preliminary response plan.

During the trapping season, PPQ staff in Washington and the Pollinator Cross Functional Working Group meet with Washington officials every other week to discuss the response and plan upcoming actions. Additionally, PPQ hosts an annual review meeting in January to reflect on successes and lessons learned during the previous trapping season.

“This fiscal year, PPA 7721-funded projects included Asian giant hornet eradication in Washington State, public outreach, and research totaling approximately $900,000,” said Gilligan. “These projects will go a long way to protect pollinators in Washington State from this harmful pest.”

While the good news is that the number of honey bee colonies in the United States has remained relatively stable because of the dedication of our beekeepers, they still lose too many of their hives each year.  PPQ is committed to finding solutions to address the pests and pathogens that impact honey bees. This work is essential because honey bees are critical contributors to U.S. agricultural and native plant ecosystems. 

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